What I've Learned from Animé/Manga 5: Nobody's Perfect

>> Thursday, October 28, 2010

If you hate animé/manga or don't know what I'm talking about, see the intro or the disclaimer here. This series is all about trying to figure out what is so appealing in animé/manga, given that they almost always have nonsensical premises and ridiculous storylines, yet they appeal to millions, including me. Why? Note, I'll use observer to refer to both an animé watcher or a manga reader.

One of the things I like about the animés/mangas I "observe" is that even the most extreme or obvious character, the most beautiful, talented or smart character, has darkness behind them, has flaws and room to grow.

It sounds obvious, yet I'm often amazed how frequently a story, novel, even series of novels have a character that doesn't evolve or have any real depth. For some reason, animé/manga (at least the stuff I like) takes this sort of thing very seriously. Tragedy and darkness are frequently significant aspects of his past or his present. That means issues they have to overcome, angst that might not be obvious or perspectives that might take the observer by surprise.

With magic and whatnot often an element (again of the kind I like), it would be easy to make someone too "perfect," but I don't run into them in the ones I like. No matter how "perfect" or powerful a character is, he or she has flaws or weaknesses or vulnerabilities. These weaknesses not only allow growth and change, but also play into the interdependence that is so much a part of these stories. There is not one hero saving all, but a number little victories by different protagonists depending on each other to lead to eventual success. (Animés/mangas frequently feature ensemble casts, which I like.) Or that interdependency, that selfless love for another, can be the vulnerability.

These weaknesses and vulnerabilities also make the characters more approachable, less obnoxious, more readily identified with. They can add charm to someone otherwise cold or humor to someone otherwise polished.

And they are not always successful. One thing I admire is that frequently animés/mangas will encompass tragedy, embrace unthinkable failure. Such things can be depressing or sad, but they also add interest. A story centered on a character that never fails, no matter who he (or she) faces, can get old and hackneyed. Failure and setbacks not only contribute to growth, they add interest and uncertainty that can keep the observer involved.

This tendency is hardly animés/manga specific, but it seems universal to the genre. However, it also gives emotional over-the-top would-be caricatures amazing depth and complexity.


Raimon Shiragi - Raimon could readily become the too-good-to-be-true type. He's a genius, can subvert any computer, invents, and fights like a demon. However, his single-minded devotion to Kotobuki leaves him vicious, callous and suicidal if she is "lost." He also is put into danger on her behalf (many times giving himself up so she would not be harmed) and ultimately is captured and apparently destroyed for no greater reason than his refusal to break his word to Kotobuki. (Tsubasa, Those With Wings)

Habaek/Mui - A Water God of surpassing power, he suffers for love of a mortal (who tried to betray him) and has been cursed by the Emperor of the Gods (because the latter feared his power) so that he lives his days as a child and is only an adult at night. When he falls in love with another mortal, most of the story surrounds his wooing of his suspicious bride (who thinks she's married to the child Habaek not the would-be lover adult Mui) while protecting this great vulnerability from the machinations of the immortals around him who want any leverage possible against him. And not with particular success so far.

Kyoya Otori - Cold, talented, brilliant, rich, powerful, ruthless. His interactions and interdependence with the flighty extravagant Tamaki can be hard to appreciate until you realize that Tamaki's encouragement (no slouch in the perception department) has enabled him to break away from the mold of the dutiful third son and strike out for his own interests, going so far as to find his own fortune and destiny.


What I've Learned from Animé/Manga 4: Putting Others First

>> Monday, October 25, 2010

If you hate animé/manga or don't know what I'm talking about, see the intro or the disclaimer here. This series is all about trying to figure out what is so appealing in animé/manga, given that they almost always have nonsensical premises and ridiculous storylines, yet they appeal to millions, including me. Why? Note, I'll use observer to refer to both an animé watcher or a manga reader.

As I was thinking about common traits in the animé/manga, it struck me that the motivations of the characters were so frequently related and all about unselfishness.

The motivations of characters (protagonists) are almost always selfless, putting their own needs behind the needs, safety and/or happiness of others. Selfless! What kind of moron lets everyone walk all over them, giving up everything for love of someone else? What kind of passive, stupid, pathetic . . . Except I don't find it that way at all, because it's not one character giving everything and having everyone else walk all over them. Everyone even vaguely on the good side either starts out thinking of other people first or they learn to. Pure selfishness is reserved for bad guys. Always. Perhaps it's a Japanese thing. Maybe it's an idealized love thing, that no one can love anyone without putting the other's needs first. Maybe those are just the animés/mangas I love.

Now, why is that distinctive? I mean, sure, lots of stories have noble or self-sacrificing people in them, but in western stories, it is frequently one person doing so, or a small cadre of people. People, even protagonists, are frequently motivated by greed or serving a disembodied purpose like patriotism or proving something. In animé/manga, the primary motivation (at least of the ones I've loved) is the protection, happiness, rescue, or freedom of other people. And not just the main character, but every one of the protagonist characters. Even those characters that are otherwise self-absorbed, will put themselves on the line without hesitation for the well-being of others.

Sometimes a character starts out seeming a doormat, but, over time, you realize that they engender protective feelings in those around them and that they'll stand up for others in a way that shows they have tremendous strength. Sometimes someone apparently self-absorbed or narcissistic turns out to be amazingly perceptive and unselfish underneath. Many times, these depths of strength or generosity are only apparent through the interactions with others.

It changes the dynamics. Love of others is part and parcel of the stories, the interplay, the interactions. Not just romantic love (though that's frequently there too), but friendships and family relationships, as if that were what life was all about rather than success or money or fame. It's about finding your place, where you belong, what's really important.

Maybe it's just me (I am the only one writing this), but it seems to me that kind of thinking is a lot healthier than books that are focused on teenage angst or petty rivalries, or revenge or hatred, or even the kind of love where no one is really committed to anyone else. It's not to say you can't find all these things, and more, in animé/manga, but, at least in the ones I read, it's not what it's all about.

More next time.

Examples for this topic:

Tamaki Suoh - Beautiful, brash and unabashedly self-absorbed, he is almost painfully devoted to the happiness of others. No sacrifice is too much, and he expends a great deal of effort keeping others from seeing any of his own unhappiness or vulnerabilities for their sake, not his. It sounds sappy and he's as over the top as any character I've ever seen. But I can't help loving him. He's a gem who's touched me as often as he made me laugh. (Ouran High School Host Club)

Kyo Usui - A demon who fell in love with a young girl when he saw her misused by his older brother, he spent ten years becoming the head of his clan so that he could wed her (only a clan head can) and devotes himself to her protection, which is a full-time job. When he believes consummating their relationship may put her at risk, he's even protects her from himself. (Black Bird)

Misao Harada - While attacked by the otherworldly demons and the like, pursued by a demon she knew as a child but barely remembers, she determines she doesn't want to be a helpless victim, but actively works to heal and protect the interests of Kyo, even at the risk of her own life, even if she's working against what Kyo wants to do (which drives Kyo crazy) if its in his best interest. (Black Bird)

Bart Garsus - motivated primarily self-preservation in the beginning, he is a shallow fellow to begin, but he finds new depths when he befriends a dying girl and devotes himself to protecting the other people he's grown to care about. Even when he is later "captured" by his own nation, he doesn't betray his friends under torture. In fact, as was a common theme, people routinely found new capabilities only when driven to new heights for the protection of others. (Vandread)


What I've Learned from Animé/Manga 3: Outsider Main Character

>> Saturday, October 23, 2010

If you hate animé/manga or don't know what I'm talking about, see the intro or the disclaimer here.

This series is all about trying to figure out what is so appealing in animé/manga, given that they almost always have nonsensical premises and ridiculous storylines, yet they appeal to millions, including me. Why? Note, I'll use observer to refer to both an animé watcher or a manga reader.

Last time, I talked about how the main characters were frequently ordinary, but it's not the only key trait.

The story usually centers around someone who is, in some aspect, an outsider. It might seem that ordinary and ostracized are contradictory traits, but are they? Don't most people feel like outsiders, at least at some point in their lives? Even if they're part of a group, don't they, at times, feel outside it? I think many (if not most) people can identify with a character who either has to put on a show to fit in (but never really feels accepted) or is ostracized because they don't put on a show, with a character who either is or feels alone.

Admittedly, like much about animé/manga, they often take it to extremes. Main characters are often orphaned or far from home or otherwise alone. Though ordinary, they often have traits that make others shun or avoid them, something that sets them apart as other. They also frequently think of themselves as nothing special, as if they deserve to go unnoticed. So, why is this powerful? Because the observer can identify with the character? I think yes, but there's more.

Usually, very early in the story line, the main character is accepted, even embraced, by the strange/talented/beautiful/odd other character(s) and their equally eccentric friends, included by individuals who see the main character as he really is. That is a very compelling notion, the notion that people who seem so exceptional could look at someone normal and see what makes them special, appreciate it. It humanizes these over-the-top other characters and gives the main character a sense of belonging that, lets face it, most of us have longed for at some time or another. People who understand us. People who appreciate us. People who accept us as family.
It's a very satisfying notion.

But wait, there's more. Next time.

Examples of today's topic:

Sophy - convinced that she is plain and dull, Sophy doesn't participate in the frivolous enjoyment others do and, by a strange coincidence, is eventually spelled into a body as old and unappealing as she sees herself. (Howl's Moving Castle)

Misao Harada - can see spirits and ghosts and otherworldly demons. As a child, she was ridiculed for lying or treated as insane. As an young adult, she feels she has to hide it and her reactions to these things no one else sees still keeps people at arms length. (Black Bird)

Hibiki Tokai - a lower class citizen who is marginalized for his bravado so that he always feels he has something to prove to people who will never accept him anyway. It is only when he finds acceptance by those he never expected to accept him that he really finds his stride. (Vandread)

Kotobuki - rejection by a society that considers orphans effectively unpeople (nameless) leads to her life of crime, but someone else's belief in her as a person, first as a child, then as someone approaching adulthood, help her find her own strengths. (Tsubasa Those With Wings)

Tohru Honda - The name, Fruits Basket, refers to a game where children are assigned a fruit and will join in when called. Tohru was assigned rice ball as a joke only realizing after the fact that she would never be called since she wasn't a fruit. The analogy carried over to her sense that, with the strange and surreal Sohma clan, she was finally called. (Fruits Basket)


What I've Learned from Animé/Manga 2: Grounded Main Character

>> Friday, October 22, 2010

Disclaimer: Animé and manga are not for everyone. I'm not trying to push it on the uninterested. However - and I was surprised as anyone - I've been intrigued and entranced by certain shows/books. I also know that there are, literally, millions of fans world-wide. Given that, and my tendency to try to understand anything that draws me in, I'm trying to pinpoint why it appeals to me (and, perhaps, why it appeals to others). I also must point out that I'm hardly hard-core. I've watched a limited number of animé, read a limited number of manga, and I've enjoyed only a subset of them. And I've mostly been entranced by shojo manga, a small subset of what's out there. Also note, I'm not a teenager, not a comic book fan, and not a gamer.

So, I was thinking about what common threads I find in my favorites, what I notice and why I think it appeals. I'll list those common threads and why I think they work. Today, I'm going to focus on main characters. I'll use observer to denote both an animé watcher and a manga reader.

They usually center around someone comparatively ordinary. Although animé/manga frequently explore truly fantastic notions, the main character is often comparatively mundane, a foil for the extremes around them They are rarely the smartest or most beautiful, usually not the most (overtly) magical if magical at all. Frequently, there is every appearance that their involvement in the whole thing is some strange coincidence. And yet, they end up being pivotal, either the central focus of the story or the catalyst that makes things happen.

There are many reasons why this is powerful. First, it's easy for observers to identify with this main character, an easy transition from this character the the observer to imagine his or her self in the story. The character's absolute acceptance of the most extreme magic, whimsical technological notions or the otherworldliness around him or her makes the world more believable.

More than that, though, the MC frequently becomes the focus for the most extreme characters, who turn out to be devoted to the main character, even obsessed. Usually, this focus seems misplaced, a strange quirk of fate, pity, confusion, something, that makes this humdrum individual the center of the universe for people/beings who seems so much more fantastic, talented, beautiful or whatever.

But, over time, it stop seeming so odd or unnatural and begins to makes sense as the observer (us) learns to appreciate what the other characters are fascinated by, learn to acknowledge the strengths and spirit that makes the main character treasured by individuals who seem like they'd never give a second thought to ordinary people. Whether the main character turns out to have hidden talents or capabilities or whether it's just the value of her personality, character and spirit, her value and contribution to the greatness around her eventually makes sense. Finally, her treasured status seem natural for the observer. That's a great way for the observers to feel empowered, to feel like there's more to themselves than most people see and appreciate. Like they might be worthy of more than the normal people appreciate.

More on this next time.

Examples of this:

Tohru Honda, a normal girl surrounded and cherished by shape-shifting wealthy people conditioned to feeling under someone else's control. Their protection of her starts out as a rebellion and turns into a revolution and revelation for them all. Her nature is her magic. (Fruits Basket)

Kotobuki, a "nameless" (orphan) and unsuccessful thief, beloved by the hopelessly overtalented and brilliant Raimon who was entranced by her drive to live when he had no will to do so himself. She changed that just by existing. (Tsubasa Those With Wings)

Carrot, a seemingly talentless man surrounded by talented sorcerers, obsessed over by the female contingents of his team, seemingly crass and crude. But he is filled with heart and a generous spirit and turns out to be the strongest of them all in a very unique way. (Sorcerer Hunters)

Soah, a human girl sacrificed to the Water God who ends up the focus of a complex world of deities. (Bride of the Water God - technically a manhwa, a Korean version of the manga)

Haruhi Fujioka - smart but normal, Haruhi is completely focused scholarly success. She is not charismatic and lives fairly oblivious to the people around here until she's "adopted" into the Ouran High School Host Club, a group of charismatic super-rich stunningly handsome teenagers who have a few issues of their own. And learns about all those important aspects lost in the gloss of their high profile lives. I know how it sounds, but I love this one. It's funny, too. (Ouran High School Host Club)


What Moves You

>> Thursday, October 14, 2010

One of the key elements of a novel or story, for both plot and characters, is motivation. Too frequently, in my opinion, a writer will pile actions on top of each other in order to make a plot without thinking through motivations. Instead, in order to meet the goals and plans intended by the writer, character Y has to do action T here, and the fact that there's no compelling reason for character Y to do so is glossed over in the interest of getting all the good stuff the writer intends.

Good authors do it (once in a while). Bad authors do it. A lot. Constantly.


No matter how cool your plot is to you, how precious a twist or turn that's coming, how clever a denouement you have planned, don't cheat to get there. A plot is only as clever and strong as it's weakest link. Skip steps, cut a corner here or there, have a character wander down a path that makes no sense and the plot comes across as contrived, false. At best. At worst, the bottom can fall out of the whole thing.

That doesn't mean it has to be logical. People do illogical or stupid or perverse things all the time. But it has to fit. That's good and bad. The cool thing about writing is that you can make as much or as little of the fictional world as you want. It's wide open. Limitless. The downside is, once you've built your world, you're bound by it. The rules need to be consistent, make sense within their own framework. That means almost any action can make sense if you've set it up so the actions fits. Having your protagonist slug a man in the mouth unprovoked requires a reason, a provocation (unless, say, they're brothers). There are any number of good ones, but you need to have a plausible reason for it, one that the reader can identify with, at some point in the story. But even perfect reasonably actions for a regular person may make no sense depending on how you built your character. The actions need to fit or the characterization gets muddy.

If not, the real damage is done to the characters. Nothing, in my opinion, kills a character, particularly a strong or personable one, like forcing them to do something that doesn't jibe with who they are. Like with the plot, you can have a character do almost anything, kill, maim, kick puppies - as long as it fits with the character or there's a rationale that makes sense for that character in that world in that situation. You start pushing your character in a direction that is hard to understand or seems at odds with who they are, you can lose a reader's interest, in the situation, in the plot, even in the character.

That doesn't mean the motivation always has to be spelled out. Nor that it will make sense to everyone. Sometimes, something will sit wrong with a reader and there's nothing to be done about it. If there are enough that identify with your viewpoint, that's not an issue - there's always someone who won't get it - but if you have to explain it to everyone, you might want to rethink it.

This is one of my pet peeves. For character readers, like myself, it can make or break a book, a character. In some cases, an author.

For me, once I've felt betrayed once too often by an author, I never go back.


More than a Telegram

>> Monday, October 11, 2010

I read Query Shark quite frequently. I've found it invaluable, not only to see what mistakes others are making, but honing my critical skill so I can write my own queries better. I may have mentioned that marketing isn't my strong suit.

Frequently, I often stumble across interesting discussions, not only on what books are effective or interesting or marketable (though that too), but what's appropriate for young adults or what ideas seem, um, twisted. And, every once in a while, there will be a discussion that intrigues me, like the one attached to query #183. There's some technical stuff, and some detailed stuff, some continuity headaches, etc. But what intrigued me is the notion that deeper meanings are taboo. The moderator, Query Shark, said:

I'm also EXTREMELY wary of authors who are trying to make a point or teach a lesson, or illuminate a problem in novels. Story comes first and authors who want to make a point rarely are willing to let the story dominate the points they want to make. Stories with lessons are called parables, not novels.
Others agreed (as I did to a point) and one quoted Samuel Goldwyn (of MGM), "If you've got a message, send a telegram." Now, let's be clear. I agree that the heavy-handed message intended in this query seems clumsy. I agree that people with an axe to grind frequently fill novels and stories (and movies and whatnot) with tons of useless, painful, contrived garbage that turn what might have been a story into an dull flavorless experiences or a mindless miasma of illogical contortions that only appeals to like-minded sanctimonious "intellectuals." Think Oscar winner.

Most people don't pick up a novel to get a sermon. Or, if they do, they're reading different books than I'm reading.

For example, Victor Hugo's great novel (one of 'em anyway), Les Misérables, was interspersed with long tracts on French post-Revolutionary politics and history. Fortunately, he set them apart from the novel and, by just skipping those sections, the novel itself makes a fine read. What's more, every point he's trying to make in those sections (at least in my opinion) is just as clearly elucidated in the story proper - and more effectively.

Why do I say that?

Because it wasn't a dry lesson when it involved Cosette, Valjean and even Javert. Each of the characters grew, living in that history Hugo was trying to portray, changed by it, growing through the hardships and even the successes, learning something. It didn't feel like a sermon, though the lessons were there. It felt like a story and I could appreciate the hardship because I read along with the people, lived alongside them for a while. The problems, issues and history were humanized by making it into an accessible story. That's why it was great.

Make it clunky, subvert the characters or story to press your point, and it because unreal and contrived, undermining the lesson's credibility, precluding it from touching the reader. But make the characters alive, the story all too plausible, believable, real, as say Charles Dickens did, and you send a message that continues to echo generations later. You want to talk about power.

Stories, particularly character stories as I favor, are about growth. Lessons come naturally, fall into place without any browbeating or monologues. Each writer helps shape each character into what they want them to become, provides the world, which can be harsher than today or more enlightened, and uses that circumstance to highlight all kinds of thoughts pertinent to people in today's environment. No matter how far-fetched the notions, it can be accessible, characters can suck people in and make them identify with different viewpoints, aspects, prejudices, cultures. If we, as writers, can't get readers to identify with our characters, the stories wouldn't work anyway.

But it should be natural, unforced, a quiet side effect of telling a compelling story about interesting characters. Even fluff fiction has aspects of this, depending on what direction you want your characters to grow. One reason I read only a couple of romance authors is because I hate the ever prevalent rapist-as-the-hero trend. Harmless tripe, one might say. Well, I think anything you read has the potential to influence you, make you think the world is as it's shown. And, in my view, that's not harmless.

I read and write characters living the way I'd like to think I'd live if I were in that situation. Honest, caring, generous, forgiving, tolerant. Funny. Imperfect. When I write characters with those characteristics I admire, I'm instilling a deeper meaning, even in my least serious work.

I don't think any novel serves a higher purpose by battering the reader with obvious homilies and preaching. A good book, should, at most, makes it an "a-ha" moment as a reader thinks, "I never thought about it that way." Preferably after the fact. And, at best, the reader looks out at the world differently than they did before without even necessarily knowing why.

At least, that's what I think.


Best Thing to Hear

>> Sunday, October 10, 2010

I read my books (and others) to my husband. I always catch things to fix and he's ruthless if something isn't working. The collaboration has it's down sides. Sometimes we butt heads and it's a real struggle to work through it.

This last novel was no exception. I had my heart set on infecting the hero of book number one with a brain-eating parasite and Lee just wasn't happy about having his favorite character get his brain eaten (even though I was going to make him survive). My medical friend actually sided with him so we did something different-ish.

Had to find a different way to pull it all together, but, in many ways, it worked out even better. Which is why I work with my husband.

So, I just read the finished book to my husband, cleaning up this, straightening wording here, tightening up this phrase or that. Still needs some polish, but, really, I thought, not as much as I expected. I seem to need less and less polishing the more books I write.

My voice, with my allergies was going, but he kept urging me to read more. How can you not want to read more if your audience is wanting it? Very gratifying. We managed to finish it up at 2 am yesterday.

What does he say to me this morning? "You know the worst thing about that book? There's not more of it."

If we're never published, I'll still have that.


Done With the Draft of My First Sequel

>> Thursday, October 7, 2010

So, novel number four is done. Well, not done, done, mind you. But the draft is done. I've put down what I want to say in the order I want to say it. And parts of it, I know, are great - or at least fun. Still, I know parts are very rough, clumsy or too pat. The pieces are all there, but it might not all be put together correctly.

It's not the end of the journey, of course. I'll have to read it through with Lee to even get the draft feeling done. And then it'll need to sit a few months before I look at it again and fix what I'm too close to fix today. Pieces that need to be shuffled (which is not uncommon in ensemble novel like I have here and the one before), fight scenes that need to be expanded (or trimmed) and made better, dialog to be polished.

Still, I like the notion. I like my characters and I'm glad to be "finished."

Odd, more and more my sweet spot for book length seems to be between 90 and 100K words.

So, what's next?


Keeping It Real

>> Monday, October 4, 2010

Last time, I talked about selling the implausible, figuring out ways to make the implausible palatable to the discerning reader. However, building an acceptable framework to make an out-of-the-ordinary scenario or character acceptable is only part of the problem. The other half is living with the consequences.

What does that mean, living with the consequences? That means that, however nonsensical your premise/characters are in relationship to the real world as we know it, it has to makes sense in the world you create. The more out-of-normal you make a scenario or situation or character, the more consistent you need to be in reinforcing that scenario or situation or character. Whatever your framework, you need to be true to it, whether far future, pure fantasy, alternate reality or historical.

Keep your rules consistent. This is most useful for SF/Fantasy writers, but it can be true for anyone. If mages can't have children in your reality, don't give one an illegitimate child later. Any world has a framework of what is and isn't true. The more original your world, the more rules and reality you get to decide - but you have to stick with them. Every time you break a rule, or change what "is" in a world you've created, you blur the picture, take it that little bit out of focus. Do it often enough and the reality you're trying to project becomes blurry or with colors so disharmonious the reader can't suspend disbelief.

Keep what's normal normal. Every world, even the most bizarre, has some grounding in reality. Gravity works the same or creatures react the same way to heat and cold. The more normal you can make the normal aspects of your world or situation, the (a) more what's original stands out and interests and (b) the more believable those extraordinary aspects are. If you send someone back in time, don't have him invent cars and what-not if he was a shoe salesman in his own time. He's not going to back in to the time of Da Vinci and design a real helicopter in between hot sessions with smooth-skinned sweet-smelling women. The women he'll meet will have rotting teeth and hairy legs and lice. And they'll smell bad. And, within a short time, so will he.* The more real and accurate you build the past, the more realistically modern he is (and his reactions are to the realities of the past), the more effective such a scenario is.

People are people. Tall, short, tiny, furry, aquatic, superpowered, telepathic, sparkly, whatever, they still act in a way people can identify with or, well, no one's going to identify with them. If that happens, your scenario's going to go to pot. Oftimes, that means giving at least some human characteristics to those who aren't human (like rabbits in Watership Down), but, more importantly, it means that the characters in your story behave in a believable way within the framework of that story. People act with believable motivation (and, yes, stupidity can be one of those motivations, but it ought not to be the primary one for your protagonists) or it won't work. Far too frequently, a plot or situation is contrived by making a character act, well, completely out of character for a period of time. Like a fantastical scenario, an apparently out-of-character action needs to have a plausible explanation or your character will falter. Do it too often, and your reader will trip right out of the story.

*Oy, historical novels. I almost can't read them, so many of them are so awful. And I love history. It's not enough to get the historical details right (and even that happens far less often than it should). You have to build the world right. The further back you go, the harder it is. If you set a historical novel in Elizabethan England, the people won't speak like they do on the Tudors. They'll sound like a Shakespearean play because that's how they talked back then (only with less iambic pentameter and, likely, a smaller vocabulary). A lady's maidservant in William the Conqueror's time wouldn't be reading letters from her lover - it's not even likely her mistress could read it. Don't be pulling out the hip baths and daily changes of clothing in 1670. Most people only had a handful of outfits because cloth production and sewing were hugely labor intensive. Ditto for bathes (and many thought them "dangerous"). And, for "nobility" doffing and donning clothes was equally challenging and not to be done without help.

And, for the love of God, don't give your character the traits of today's modern women or men. People, for all their individuality and talents, are also products of their time. If you want to write historicals, please please read contemporary literature first. If you can't drag yourself through Chaucer or Shakespeare or Austen, maybe you should pick another venue for your story.


A Likely Story

>> Saturday, October 2, 2010

After giving you all "permission" to write stories, plot, scenarios and characters that seem implausible, unlikely, even fantastic, what more is there to say? I've given you carte blanche, no?


I truly feel that the sky's no limit when it comes to characters, plots, settings, and stories, but - and it's a big but - you have to sell it as believable and live with the consequences. That's really two completely separate things and may mean this is in two segments. And I should probably explain it more.

Selling the implausible. We all know I hate marketing, but I love story-telling and this is part of it. And there are multiple ways to take a fantastic idea and make it work.

Everyone buys it. One method to impart plausibility is to make it a natural part of the world you build. If everyone takes shapeshifters or faith healers as part of the normal populace, it's easier for your audience to do so as well. An excellent example of this is Edwards Scissorhands which involved a highly implausible scenario and building characters and stories upon it. It worked because everyone in the movie took the scenario at face value and they ran with it. This is a pretty common method in fantasy and science fiction.

Build a plausible explanation. Something can seem impossible but turn plausible if the steps leading to it make sense: societies that work differently than ours, different biologies, different technologies, a character so capable you can believe he/she can do anything. Want an eleven year old starship captain? You'd better make him a prodigy, brilliant and mature beyond his years (and an explanation for that is useful too - did he raise himself and/or others? Trained as a pilot since birth? Have exceptional parents? Do people mature early or are children considered adult earlier? Do years last longer?)

It has to make sense. Not in our reality, but in the one you make. If, to get there, protagonists have to do stupid or nonsensical things, or rules are made and then unmade or the events behind it are so contrived and convoluted as to be ridiculous, you haven't built it right. I'm not saying each action has to make sense, but each thread, as part of the whole tapestry must (or it probably doesn't belong).

Make the story/characters so compelling that people forgive the details. This has been done by newbies and experts alike. It's frequently used to make hackneyed storylines (like romances) palatable despite being done a jillion times (and still loved by many). The problem with this method is that (a) for everyone who does this successfully, there dozens who don't pull it off and (b) you will always alienate a certain group of readers automatically by doing this. The Twilight series is a good example of this. For those caught up in the characters (as I was), the details are forgiven even though a (sizable) number of them make no sense. For purists, even saying "sparkly vampire" is enough to have them beat you up. Twilight et. al. made gobs of money, but there is a huge faction of haters who have never even read it. And, as I said, there are dozens of books that tried similar things that fell flat. Making compelling stories/characters with a story riddled with errors or poorly thought out details is HARD and falls flat more often than it succeeds. It's not a path I recommend.

As for part two, living with the consequences, I'll save that for the next post.



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